Now I don't know about you, but all I want from Santa this year is the loan of one of his grant-writing elves – one that, if I’ve been especially good, might help me with a bit of coursework marking, too. However, despite my many heartfelt missives to the North Pole, I awake each Christmas morning to disappointment. No mythical creature clad in pine green with a laptop under his arm greets me; only turkey and aftershave.
But around this time of year you really do need a little helper. Because, from about mid-November onwards, everybody wants everything done “before Christmas”. All other deadline dates, it seems, temporarily cease to exist. Doesn’t matter what it is, from returning a health and safety questionnaire to repainting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: it all has to be done and dusted before Donner, Blitzen and their mates are due in town. It’s as though they think that you’re going to spontaneously combust on Boxing Day or something. It is, therefore, a cruel irony that accompanying this sudden doubling of your workload is the need to get out there and do battle in the shopping centre in the hope that you might find some suitable presents for friends and family.
Decent folk, who consistently stay true to the message of Christmas, spend all year getting their gift lists together, buying well in advance, effortlessly combining forethought and material substance, and thus avoiding disappointment for all. But as a mere mortal, I find myself distracted from the spirit of giving by the Christmas list that itemises the things that absolutely have to be done before the end of term.
I have learned to live with this, but more importantly I have learned to adapt. When you’re up against it and short on time, maximal efficiency over other tasks is essential. And so here, for all, is a strategy for dealing with the time sink that is Christmas shopping: I call it The Christmas Dash.
The Dash gets all your gift-buying done in a few short hours and on the same day. It works like this: first, gather up a couple of similarly disorganised friends to join you in your quest for perfect but rapidly purchased presents. You’ll need their moral support when you’re flagging mid-afternoon, and hunting in packs has the added bonus of combining present shopping with a social fixture, thus further easing the strain on your hectic diary.
For The Dash to succeed, all involved need to adhere to the rules: first of all, absolutely no gift-buying is allowed before the day of The Dash. Second, The Dash must occur on the last available shopping day before Christmas. These measures serve to focus the mind and force decisions out of you in a uniquely efficient way.
There used to be a third rule, which required us to go to a pub between shops for a quick drink after each successful purchase. However, that ended in catastrophe one year with us buying a selection of truly random presents including one suspect-looking doughnut maker that was returned faster than you can say “Did you keep the receipt?”.
Nevertheless, this is an otherwise tried-and-tested formula, leaving you comfortable in the knowledge that, as long as there is one shopping day left before 25 December, you’re going to be OK. With practice, you will find that 95 per cent of all acceptable presents can be bought in a book shop, or in the CD megastore on the opposite side of the road, in the opening hour of your run.
A common pitfall is to become fixated on how much money you should spend, which only wastes precious decision-making time. As we all know, it’s not what the gift costs that counts...but contrary to popular belief, it’s not how long you spend thinking about it either. Take my advice: don’t think about the price. In fact, don’t think very much at all: just get stuff that is shiny or heavy, or both, and the majority of recipients won’t be disappointed.
The Dash itself can, of course, be a little stressful – rolling around town as the light is fading, bracing yourself for the obligatory Oxford Street scrum, hoping that this isn’t the year that you’re going to screw up and forget somebody, and wondering how much more Frank Sinatra you can bear to listen to before you start to melt. But if you can steel your nerve, the time-savings are stupendous.
In summary then: three-for-two paperback fiction, £13.98. The Spice Girls'’Greatest Hits, £8.99. Rolling under the closing shutters of a department store at 4pm on Christmas Eve, imploring the staff to let you buy something and emerging escorted by security but with the very last gift of The Dash in hand: priceless.
Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.